Li Na made the quarterfinals or better at all 12 non-clay tournaments she played during the 2013 season. (Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
With the start of the 2014 tennis season just days away, Beyond The Baseline highlights the 10 most intriguing WTA players (see our list of the most intriguing ATP players here). Some are on the verge of some headline-grabbing storylines (for better or worse), while others are just fun to watch regardless of the scoreline.
Li Na (Ranked No. 3): She may have won the French Open in 2011, but Li Na had her best season in 2013, where she made the quarterfinals or better at all 12 non-clay tournaments she played (ironic given her French Open title), made the semifinals or better at two majors, and finished at a career-high No. 3, the highest rank ever for an Asian player, man or woman. And yet you feel like she can be even better. Her partnership with Carlos Rodriguez has been just what she needed and at 31-years old, she's still willing to let her game evolve. Watching her finish the season by fighting her own instincts to stay firmly planted on the baseline and rush the net was wonderful to see.
A year ago she sounded weary of the expectations of being China's first great tennis player and her sardonic jokes about retiring cut a little too close to the bone. But after losing to Serena the three sets in the final of the WTA Championships, Li was practically upbeat and optimistic. I can't wait to see what she can do in 2014.
Agnieszka Radwanska (Ranked No. 5): I'm writing this while watching Agnieszka Radwanska play an exhibition match at the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia. Why am I watching a completely meaningless match on a Friday night? Because when Radwanska takes the court with a tennis racket, you stop what you're doing and you watch in hopes of seeing her hit a shot that makes your jaw drop. She can come off as cold and emotionless on court and I've heard fans complain about her lack of charisma and joy when she plays. But watching her slice, dice, and out-think opponents is still one of my favorite things in tennis.
Petra Kvitova (Ranked No. 6): Just as in baseball, there's just something about a left-handed swing that's more fluid and pleasing to the eye. Hard-core fans know her as "Del Petra" an homage to the game-changing potential and similarities she shares with her ATP counterpart, Juan Martin del Potro. She's a top three player if she can just get her game in order (her serve continues to be a mess) and play with a modicum of consistency (she has no idea where that forehand is going to go either), and she's the best bet when it comes to a player who can break up the stranglehold Serena and Victoria Azarenka have on the women's game.
Simona Halep (Ranked No. 11): Can Halep do better than her 2013 season, which saw her win six titles (second only to Serena) and finish just outside the top ten? You always want to see if breakout players can follow it up.
Sloane Stephens (Ranked No. 12): Intrigue surrounds Stephens on every front. On court she has a load of points to defend in January after making the semifinals of the Australian Open and Hobart International, as well as the quarterfinals of the Brisbane International. She made the second week of every Slam yet she's never made the final of any WTA tournament, let alone won a title. A poor Slam season and she could drop outside of the top 25. A good one, combined with improved play outside of the Slams and she's into the top 10 easily. But aside from wins, losses, and rankings, Stephens' public persona is still in flux after her controversial comments about Serena were published in the Spring. How her relationship with the fans and media evolves will be another element to watch.
Sabine Lisicki (Ranked No. 15): As her incredible run to the Wimbledon final showed, the powerful 24-year old is too good to be outside the top 15 and virtually irrelevant for all but two weeks out of the year. But she has to figure out a way to bring her best tennis away from the All England Club. The first step is to stay healthy for a full season. The second step is entirely mental.
Jamie Hampton (Ranked No. 28): One of my favorite press conference moments of the season happened when a reporter in Stanford, California told Hampton that she played like a "ball basher". The look on her face said it all. She was genuinely disappointed that he would describe her game so one-dimensionally, especially because she prides herself on her touch and finesse. Much like Radwanska, I have no problem tuning in to any match Hampton plays. The shot-making can be fun. Hampton finally came into her own in 2013, finishing as the No. 3 American and she'll be looking to prove that her season, in which she made her first WTA final at the AEGON International in Eastbourne, England, wasn't a fluke.
Madison Keys (Ranked No. 38): Eugenie Bouchard got all the season-ending accolades for being the highest-ranked teenager, so it's easy to overlook the fact that Keys matched Bouchard's ranking jump of 122 spots. Operating in the shadows isn't a bad gig for Keys right now. While all of America is focused on Stephens as the American heir apparent, and Bouchard and Laura Robson as the teen queens, Keys can play without any external pressure or hype. 2013 was her first full-season on the WTA tour and she finished inside the top 40. I can't wait to see what she can does next.
Venus Williams (Ranked No. 47): At the end of 2012, I predicted that Venus would finish the 2013 season inside the top 12. That obviously didn't happen, but it's hard to know how Venus' season would have unfolded if not for her back injury. We saw a glimpse when she made a run to the semifinals of the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, S.C. and at the end of the season when she made the semifinals of the Tokyo Open. There is still some great tennis in her and while her physicality may be lacking, her competitive fire burns as bright as ever. She may lose, but she will battle. The younger generation of WTA stars could learn a few things from her.
Monica Puig (Ranked No. 56)
: The 20-year old from Puerto Rico didn't finish the season strong, but for much of 2013 she was right in the conversation along with Bouchard, Robson, and Keys as part of the next generation of stars. She needs to get back into the mix.